Essential assessories: Lea Stein jewelry

Parisian designer Lea Stein noted for coloful plastic pin creations

In 1964’s classic film The Graduate, young Benjamin Braddock receives that famous piece of advice for the future — “Plastics.” Forty years later, costume jewelry collectors — bored with rhinestone dazzle — are on the hunt for outstanding designs in that quintessential 20th-century material. Although Bakelite has received the most attention, other plastics — which share the medium’s amazing ability to take on any shape or hue — are now coming into their own.

A recent star to emerge is Parisian designer Lea Stein, who has produced a series of highly recognizable plastic figural pins as well as other jewelry forms from the late 1960s to the present day. The multi-layered creations — ranging from animals and people to flowers and automobiles — allow the wearer to set a visual “theme” for the day.

At the Winterthur Fall Institute last year, Ohio arts administrator Barbara Hunzicker delighted her classmates with a different selection each session. She said, “My current favorite is a cat with a ball in black and pearlized plastic. I have the same pin in browns with tortoise-colored accents.”

She continued, “They appealed to me initially because of the sophistication in the design and the richly patterned components of the designs. They are whimsical and fun, not terribly expensive, and when worn, never fail to elicit conversation and compliments.”

Born in Paris in 1931, Lea Stein was trained as an artist and established her own textile design firm in 1957. Fernand Steinberger, Lea Stein’s husband, originally developed the material called “rhodoid” for clothing buttons. The process involved laminating cellulose acetate sheets, which were stabilized with an adhesive and then heat-processed. This material has been produced in every color of the rainbow from subtle neutrals to blazing pink and purple. The addition of fabric and metallic elements to the cellulose layers gave the product a variety of surface textures that makes the jewelry more interesting.

The couple used Steinberger’s rhodoid for buttons, bracelets, necklaces and hair combs, but Lea Stein is best known as the designer of multi-layered lapel pins or brooches. Her small company of around 50 workers produced a first round of jewelry between 1969 and 1981, when low-priced plastic imports from Asia forced her to give up the business.

Many of the vintage pins from this first production period found their way to the United States in the hands of travelers and dealers, and her work developed a following among American collectors. Because of this interest, Stein was literally called back to the field of jewelry design by popular demand. Since 1988, Stein has issued an annual collection with new pin designs and remakes of favorites. With the exception of a few early pieces, each brooch made by her firm is clearly marked with an impressed “Lea Stein Paris” on the v-shaped pin-back, which may be heat-mounted or attached with a rivet.

Distinguishing examples issued in the 1970s from more recent purchases can be complex. Certain designs were produced only in the 1969-1981 “Vintage Period,” others have definitely been introduced in recent years, while certain popular patterns from Stein’s early days have been revived and reissued. Old stock is occasionally unearthed in France, which adds to the confusion.

French dealer Jane Azocar, who runs the shop 20 Sur 20 in Paris, brings her Stein pins to the Atlantique City show twice a year and was on hand for the spring event March 25-26. She admits that living in France gives her an inside track on the Stein search: “You can find them in the flea market or from someone who bought them 30 years ago. In America, it is more complicated.”

The dealer continues, “She is not known in France. She is very known in America — because you’ve got a book!” Azocar is referring to the 2001 reference Lea Stein Jewelry by Judith Just (Schiffer Publications; $39.95), which offers excellent images of everything from the early buttons to her most recent pin designs along with useful information on dating and pricing.

The French dealer adds, “I try to find the vintage ones — but sometimes you have the collector who wants the last one. Some are not so old, you know — but collecting people want everything. I love them when they are double — two cats, two bees, two sailors.”

Jewelry author Leigh Leshner also featured Stein pieces in her 2005 reference Collecting Art Plastic Jewelry (KP Books: $24.99). She says, “Her vintage pieces are beautiful and her newer ones are beautiful. But collectors should differentiate the new pieces from the older pieces so that when they go to buy them, they are not paying prices for vintage examples when they are buying the new.”

Leshner knows why collectors love Stein: “Their appeal lies in the bright colors, large size, and the whimsical nature of the designs.” She cites the playful “Tennis Lady” design, a curving figure with short hair sometimes called the “diving girl” by collectors, which sells in the $100-$175 range. Another favorite of hers is the old-fashioned open limousine design, which brings between $50 and $100.

Other popular human figure motifs from Stein’s earlier period are a ballerina with hat, often called “Scarlett O’Hara,” an Elvis-like rock singer with guitar, an Indian chief head with multi-layered headdress, French sailors and a variety of children including little girls with umbrellas and boys on skateboards.

The popularity of animal pins in America and the United Kingdom has helped fuel demand for the many Stein interpretations of cats and dogs and birds as well as owls, panthers, hedgehogs, to name only a few members of the menagerie. One of the most popular animals is her 3-D fox with the tail looped from a single piece of rhodoid. Like many of Stein’s sought-after brooches, it is lightweight but large in size — a bold statement at 4 inches in length.

English antiques expert Judith Miller included two pages of Stein designs in her collector’s guide to Costume Jewelry (DK Publishing 2003; $30.) She says, “I was given my first Lea Stein pin — a fox — by my son for my Christmas. After that, I bought quite a few of them to give to my staff as gifts, and I’ve continued to do that. We collectors are batty — totally barking mad.”

Although “barking mad” is a popular English expression, Miller admits dogs do form part of her passion for Stein: “I now collect them because we have an airdale terrier and Stein does a pin called ‘Ric the Dog.’ I insist that’s an airdale terrier — so I buy Ric the Dog whenever I see him.”

The price guide author continues, “People are very snooty in distinguishing between the 1970s ones and the much more recent ones. There is a difference you can actually see — the older ones tend to be more layered — and a difference in the feel of them. Some designs carried on — the cat faces, for example, are from both periods. As long as you’re buying them for a reasonable amount of money — if you like it, buy it and wear it.”

While Miller and others agree that more recent pieces are — or at least should be — less expensive, prices at present seems to be driven by the visual impact of certain designs and what people are willing to pay, rather than by age. Barring a lucky find at a resale shop or estate sale, it would be hard to find any Stein pin for under than $50 and even desirable vintage designs usually sell for less than $200. Put away in jewelry boxes, the oldest Stein pins are still under 40 years old and have generally survived in good condition.

As stated above, many collectors buy them to wear or give as gifts. Price variations are found even among identical designs produced in the same year because each piece is unique, individually assembled from rhodoid pieces of distinct textures and colors. One woman might want to wear the “Carmen” brooch in honeyed browns, another might opt for bright red and blue to match an outfit. Some compositions are more successful than others, and personal taste plays into the equation.

Enthusiasts who love Stein’s pins also will be attracted to her rhodoid segmented and bangle bracelets, multi-piece necklaces, earrings and hair combs. The firm also produced mirrors and other accessories for dress and purse.

Beginning collectors should become acquainted with the Lea Stein market at shows and online before they buy. If money matters, no one should pay $125 for a piece widely available for $65. Discussing your want list with a specialized dealer like Azocar can help. Online dealer Judy Smith has an excellent profile of Stein on her Web site along with an extensive selection of vintage and newer designs offered for sale.

Smith, who makes trips to France to replenish her supply, has an infectious enthusiasm for Stein’s bright plastic pins: “Like a good compulsive collector, I have ended up with many, many pieces. Every time I think I’ve seen them all, another one will pop up!

The most valuable talent in a savvy collector’s arsenal is the ability to discern great design from any given period. Whether the object in question is a piece of Eames furniture or Teco pottery or Lea Stein jewelry, the excellence of its basic design is the quality which ensures that its appeal and value will continue into the next century.